The executive branch of the federal government and its numerous employees need to work for the benefit of all Americans.
Therefore, federal employees need to maintain an appearance of political impartiality within the workplace.
To help employees be impartial, Congress passed the Hatch Act of 1939.
The Hatch Act places several limitations on the kinds of political activities federal employees can engage in.
Running afoul of these limitations is serious and is grounds for discipline. So if you are aware of a Hatch Act violation, you should report it to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC).
However, reporting a Hatch Act violation may lead to retaliation, so make sure you contact a knowledgeable employment law attorney first.
What is the Hatch Act?
The Hatch Act is a law that aims to keep the din of partisan politics out of the federal workplace. At the same time, it tries to protect federal employees’ first amendment rights.
Unlawful Activities Under the Hatch Act
- Run for office in a partisan political election. However, federal employees can be candidates in non-partisan elections. Many local positions, like sheriff or judge, are nonpartisan.
- Solicit or discourage the political activity of any person doing business with the government. In other words, federal employees need to keep politics out of their dealings with business partners of the government.
- Invite subordinates to engage in partisan political activity or attend political events. Obviously, this prohibition applies to supervisors. Whatever their personal relationship with their subordinates, supervisors must avoid suggesting or recommending they go to political rallies or vote for a particular candidate.
- Use their official authority to interfere with an election. For instance, military commander should not use their power to shut down a polling station.
- Ask for, accept, or receive political contributions. There is a very narrow exception to this rule, but employees must meet several conditions to enjoy this exception. One requirement is that both employees be in the same labor organization.
- Engage in political activity while on duty, in the workplace, or in a government vehicle. Political activity includes things like wearing partisan political clothing, making political contributions, and doing campaign-related tasks.
While these prohibitions apply to most employees, some types of federal employees face additional restrictions.
Examples include career senior executive service (SES) employees and administrative law judges (ALJs).
Acceptable Activities Under the Hatch Act
Despite these limitations, you can still do many political activities under the Hatch Act. Some of these activities include:
- Registering to vote and voting in partisan elections—You can vote for any person you like, even if that person is an independent or belongs to a third party.
- Helping with voter registration drives—Merely encouraging people to vote does not mean they have to support a political party.
- Joining and serving in partisan political groups—This means your co-worker Bob can participate in the local Democratic Party group as long as he does not ask you to join him.
- Attending political rallies and political meetings—This includes local town-hall meetings, candidate rallies, and even partisan presidential conventions.
- Making speeches for or against candidates in a partisan election—Keep in mind, though, that you can only do this outside of the federal workplace.
- Expressing your opinions about political issues—You can express your opinions about non-partisan opinions even in the workplace.
- Expressing your opinions about partisan political issues or candidates—Unlike non-partisan issues, you cannot carry out this activity if you are at work or using your official authority.
This list is not exhaustive. So you may still be able to carry out some political activities, especially when you are not on duty.
If you want to learn more about what the Hatch Act allows, ask a federal employment lawyer.
Which Federal Employees Does the Hatch Act Cover?
The Hatch Act applies to federal employees working for the executive branch of the U.S. government.
This includes the vast majority of federal employees. Just a few of the many executive branch agencies are:
- The Department of Defense,
- The Department of Education,
- The Department of Energy,
- The Department of Agriculture, and
- The Environmental Protection Agency
The Hatch Act does not cover employees working for the legislative or judicial branches. But it can be difficult to know which branch of government is served by which agencies.
A few agencies that fall under the legislative branch are:
- The Government Accountability Office
- The Copyright Office
- The Congressional Budget Office
- The Library of Congress
- The House of Representatives
- The Senate
- The U.S. Capitol Police
Examples of judiciary branch agencies and organizations include:
- All federal courts
- The U.S. Sentencing Commission
- The Federal Judicial Center
- The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts
Despite these exceptions, a good rule of thumb is to assume that you are covered by the Hatch Act.
Interested in Learning More About the Hatch Act?
Every two to four years, the Hatch Act becomes a hot issue within the federal workplace.
During those times, it can be difficult to learn about what is acceptable under the law.
And on top of that, there are all kinds of misinformation and misunderstandings about the Hatch Act.
If you would like to learn more about what you can do under the Hatch Act, you need to consult a good attorney.
Our team at the Federal Employment Law Office of Aaron D. Wersing, PLLC is standing by to help you.
We want you to be able to exercise your political rights freely.
We can also help you if your supervisor or another bad actor is violating the Hatch Act.